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How Dental Inequality Hurts Americans

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How Dental Inequality Hurts Americans

By Austin Frakt.

Lack of dental care through Medicaid not only harms people’s health, but has negative economic implications as well.

Even before any proposed cuts take effect, Medicaid is already lean in one key area: Many state programs lack coverage for dental care.

That can be bad news not only for people’s overall well-being, but also for their ability to find and keep a job.

Not being able to see a dentist is related to a range of health problems. Periodontal disease (gum infection) is associated with an increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

In part, this reflects how people with oral health problems tend to be less healthy in other ways; diabetes and smoking, for instance, increase the chances of cardiovascular problems and endanger mouth health.

There is also a causal explanation for how oral health issues can lead to or worsen other illnesses. Bacteria originating in oral infections can circulate elsewhere, contributing to heart disease and strokes.

A similar phenomenon may be at the root of the finding that pregnant women lacking dental care or teeth cleaning are more likely to experience a preterm delivery. (Medicaid covers care related to almost half of births in the United States.)

“I’ve seen it in my own practice,” said Sidney Whitman, a dentist who treats Medicaid patients in New Jersey and also advises that state and the American Dental Association on coverage and access issues. “Without adequate oral health care, patients are far more likely to have medical issues down the road.”

There are also clear connections between poor oral health and pain and loss of teeth. Both affect what people can comfortably eat, which can lead to unhealthy changes in diet.


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